Heinlein - Door Into Summer

November 22, 2004

Robert A. Heinlein
"The Door Into Summer"
A Heinlein trio
Garden City, N.Y. : Nelson Doubleday, Inc., c1957.

I actually grabbed this Heinlein collection from the library shelves because I wanted to re-read "Door Into Summer." I last read it many many moons ago, when I was a teenager, and all I remembered was the cat who during bad weather went around to every door or window in the house asking to be let out into summer. Our old orange tabby did the same thing, for surely one of the various doors in the house must let him out where he can do his business without risking local frostbite.

When I re-read the story last week I was surprised, twice over. I had forgotten just how dated the story was - the hero is a 1950s uber-engineer who designs clever things and re-makes the world with a drafting board and a machine shop. The other surprise was that his world-changing inventions are household cleaning robots, mechanizing housework so as to free women from bondage and toil.

Heinlein has been praised as a feminist and condemned for being a sexist, both for the same reason. His female characters are all strong-willed and articulate; they know what they want and they go for it. His female characters, and his male characters in response, define themselves by their sexuality, often doing so to the point where the mind and the will are eclipsed by the body. (Not that that ever happens to us.)

Thus Door's core premise is that women do housework, and that the male engineer will save them from their fate and free them to do more productive things. In addition our hero is betrayed by his fiancee and then devotes himself through a complex plot involving cryogenic storage, time travel, and a willing-ness to help himself out of a jam so that he can finally marry the girl of his dreams -- a woman who is both strong willed and who puts her will to the purpose of supporting our hero. The engineers are all male; Heinlein imagines a world with a gendered division of labor as strong as anything in the 1920s, but the energy and drive that make the inventions into components of social change comes from men and women alike.

The 1950s were an odd time for gender roles, and Heinlein was doing one of the things that science fiction does best - take an aspect of contemporary society out of context and explore the implications of our assumptions. Thus in an era which was both seeing more women re-enter the workforce and seeing housework and parenting extolled as the only acceptable role for women to play, it is not surprising that Heinlein dug into the assumptions about what women should do and how they should do it.

It is a little surprising that he imagines a future 30 years in advance where women are freed from drudgery but women are not professionals, designers, or inventers, but there too we see the paradox of science fiction. When we take a part of our society out, turn it around and dig into its assumptions, we often stop and mount our dissected social segment in a display case that is made up of the rest of the elements of the author's original society. The future is an alien world, more alien than the past, and if we are looking at one or two ideas and telling a pulp story, then that is enough for any one work of speculative fiction.

Posted by Red Ted at November 22, 2004 11:19 PM | TrackBack
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